For most of us, talk of owning our own private island is the stuff of pipe dreams. For international cruise lines, however, such aspirations are far from fantasy.

This year alone, several of the cruise industry’s largest operators have pledged to sink millions of dollars into enhancing private island resorts already in their possession.

Royal Caribbean, for example, is investing $200m in a range of new facilities at CocoCay, its resort in the Bahamas. The makeover will include two new “beach experiences, as well as a new waterpark”, with what is reported to be the tallest waterslide in North America. Completion is set for spring 2019.

Norwegian Cruise Line, too, is busy updating Great Stirrup Cay, also located in the Bahamas. Upgraded amenities include new dining areas, in addition to an underwater sculpture garden, where families are invited to snorkel their way through a cove of mermaid statues and sea creatures.

Never one to be outdone, Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest leisure travel company, recently added a new berth at the Puerto Maya pier in the Mexican resort of Cozumel, in a bid to boost guest capacity. The group has also built a new pirate-themed kids’ waterpark at Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private island in the Bahamas.

Don’t stop the Carnival: operator to realise long-held Bahamian dream

This is not new ground for Carnival, which has totted up a number of private islands over the years, found predominantly in the Caribbean. Last year, the group also pulled off a coup in getting the green light from the Bahamian government to build a new port in East Grand Bahama.

The Miami-based operator had made no secret of its desire to build a private port in Grand Bahama, as an alternative to having to use the Freeport Harbour port facility in the western part of the island. At last, the group’s long-held wish appears set to be fulfilled, as it promises to build the largest ever cruise ship facility in the Bahamas, able to host two liners, as well as a one-mile stretch of beach, complete with recreation hubs and retail outlets. It is expected to cost in the region $100m.

“We don’t owe them anything. They got rich off of us, not the other way around.”

Able to accommodate over a million passengers a year, Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy promises the project will be a “one-of-a-kind destination experience”, and a welcome boost to the local economy.

Not everyone shares Duffy’s enthusiasm, however. First of all, there are fears that Carnival’s withdrawal from Freeport Harbour will instead have a detrimental impact on local businesses operating in the western part of the island.

There is also outrage amongst some communities that the Bahamian government simply caved into the whims of another corporate superpower. In a febrile letter to local news website Eyewitness News, one reader claimed Carnival was guilty of “holding the country hostage with threats that they will not come to our ports if we do not obey their wishes”.

Why should they get to do whatever they want around here?” the note continued. “They have brought tourists, sure, but nearly all of the profits go to the cruise ships. We don’t owe them anything. They got rich off of us, not the other way around.”

Ecosystems under threat

There are also concerns over the kind of impact the new port will have on the local ecosystems. Joseph Darville, chairman of Save the Bays, a campaign group dedicated to protecting natural harbours around the Bahamas, has little problem with the idea of more tourists visiting the island, but fears the project will cause more harm than good.

“It is well and good, when a cruise line owns a small island in the Bahamas, and uses it to tender its passengers on shore to enjoy the beach and pristine waters,” Darville tells me. “However, when plans are generated to develop a port and docking facilities to accommodate mega cruise ships in our delicately balanced ecosystems, there is a myriad of concerns.

“On the side of Grand Bahama, which is the site envisioned, there are five ecosystems which stand to be significantly destroyed. Presently, they form the marine and delicate environments which contain and supply an abundance of fish and other marine food for the Bahamas.”

Darville points to the array of deep-water fish found off the shoreline of East Grand Bahama, such as grouper and red snapper, as well as grunts, yellowtails and lobster habitats. Any form of dredging to accommodate Carnival’s sizeable vessels would, he says, “devastate these areas”.

“Then in close proximity to land are the areas of grass and sandy bottoms where other fish, like bone fish, turtles, conchs and a myriad of other sea animals roam freely,” he continues. “Then you are upon another ecosystem, the sandy beaches where these cruise lines plan to establish their exclusive city areas, replenished with every conceivable convenience.

“There is yet another delicate environment which will have to be destroyed, for beyond the beach and sandy dunes are the wetlands of mangroves and spawning areas for marine life. It’s the incursion upon them that portends further environmental destruction.”

“A city unto itself”: tourism at the cost of everything else

According to Jillian Rickly, an assistant professor in tourism management and marketing at the University of Nottingham, the idea of cruise companies contributing to local economies simply by depositing tourists at ports is becoming fast outmoded. Instead, they are being forced to explore new ways of placating local tourism boards – not to mention environmentalists.

So where do private islands fit into all of this?

“If these cruise companies are considering purchasing their own private islands, I imagine this will bring further criticism and many questions,” she says.

“The citizens of the Bahamas will be only menial tasks employees.”

“What are the current uses of these islands? Are they used by local fishing communities? Are they ecological hotspots? What is at risk when developing these islands, and would this development remove some of the crowding from the other islands that cruise ships dock at? How will local communities be compensated if these islands are purchased and they lose access to these resources or experience a loss of tourist arrivals as a result?” 

These are many questions – to which Carnival could not be reached to provide comment. For Darville, though, the new port definitively spells out bad news for islanders.

“This project as projected will become a city unto itself [and it will cause] the destruction of massive and delicate areas of our sacred heritage,” he says. “Then citizens of the Bahamas will be only menial tasks employees.”